By Frazier Moore Associated Press
NEW YORK — As “The Good Wife” comes in for a landing after seven seasons, it finds its namesake heroine, Alicia Florrick, facing the same dilemma as when it began: defending her husband, now the governor of Illinois, who is mired in a scandal that could send him back to prison.
Will this crisis reunite Alicia (played by Julianna Margulies) with Peter (Chris Noth), from whom she’s been estranged as he awaits a jury’s verdict? Or will she finally divorce the man who, in the series’ 2009 premiere, was the disgraced Chicago-area state’s attorney heading to prison for corruption involving prostitutes? After all these years as a dutiful lawyer, mother and wife, what will be Alicia’s future path?
All presumably will be revealed when “The Good Wife” concludes Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.
A legal drama and much more, “The Good Wife” has been that rare program on a mainstream broadcast network that could stand alongside the cable-network exotica certifying television’s new golden age.
But even more remarkably for a medium that traffics in crazes and clones, “The Good Wife” has always been genre-defying, neither a copy of anything that came before or, thus far, tempting any programmer to try to copy it.
How could that be?
As Robert and Michelle King — the show’s creators and executive producers — continue to occupy what had been its Brooklyn offices but now is home for “BrainDead ,” their upcoming CBS summer series, this husband-and-wife team recently mused on what made the series so good.
Robust universe of characters
It’s “really tricky” to maintain, said Michelle. “You tell serialized stories with not just your core cast, but with ancillary characters who aren’t regular, and you don’t have access to those actors on a regular basis. But we wanted to be able to tell what’s going on not only with Alicia, say, but also with her mom (Stockard Channing) and her brother (Dallas Roberts),” just two of the show’s countless recurring characters. “It becomes a real challenge for everyone in the production to juggle all those actors’ schedules.”
Splendid actors in complex roles
“The writing sets a tone for the actors and then gets out of the way,” said Robert. “For instance, in our fourth-ever episode we needed an antagonist, but instead of a mean and angry male lawyer, we thought, ‘What if it’s a pregnant woman, and what if she uses her pregnancy to break up depositions whenever she wants to: “I feel a pain!”’
“Then we brought in Martha Plimpton, who sent that idea into the stratosphere. THEN we needed to have her back, because we wanted to know more of who this character is and more of what Martha would do with it.”
The narrative digs deep. At the same time, it snacks on melodrama as viewers join the show’s creators in having their cake and eating it too.
“We want the actors to have real reactions, even to ludicrous events,” Robert said. “In the beginning, viewers were commenting on how the lawyers kept winning cases, which is not very realistic. So in the third season, we decided they would start getting prosecuted for (possibly) bribing judges. The more you can hang a lantern on any ludicrous elements, the more you can then make the characters respond realistically: We even had Diane Lockhart wondering, ‘How ARE we winning so many cases?!”?’
Comedy, drama mix
“We deliberately included comedy just to keep us from being EARNEST,” said Michelle. “And we have really benefited from getting actors with comic chops.”
The show’s slate of guest stars with comic roots is vast, including Michael J. Fox, Nathan Lane, Matthew Morrison and Carrie Preston, who was unforgettably hilarious in her handful of appearances over six seasons as madcap hotshot lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni.
And among the regular cast, the Kings cited Christine Baranski (who plays a fellow lawyer of Alicia), Alan Cumming, Matt Czuchry and the departed Josh Charles for their comic skills, as well as the actress in the center square: “One of the things that originally sold us on Julianna was her amazing comedic work as a guest star on ‘Scrubs,”’ said Robert.
“CBS airs a LOT of procedurals with a lot of cases,” Robert noted, “and early on we realized that one of the ways to distinguish ourselves was to explore the digital world.”
From search engines (the law firm’s client ChumHum) to social media to a vast surveillance effort penetrating our heroes’ phones and computers, the series rose to the challenges of the rapidly unfolding digital era — seizing on many breakthroughs even before the audience did (bitcoin, anyone?).
This brave new world served the show’s storytellers well, along with its viewers.
“We had one episode with a case we wanted to end. And we have trouble with endings,” said Robert. “But it turned out the judge had inadvertently friended a person on Facebook who was on the jury.” Bingo — mistrial!
— EXPLORING WITHOUT PREACHING
“We made an effort to be respectful of both sides of any argument,” said Michelle, “and to never dismiss a character who had a different point of view as being stupid or evil.”
“Our ‘earnest episodes’ have usually been about immigration and capital punishment,” said Robert, “and it was hard for us to see both sides of those issues, so we stopped doing them. With everything else — even abortion — we wanted to do stories where, when you’re watching, you’re surprised by not knowing what side of the case you’ll come down on.”
— LICKETY-SPLIT PACING
“Our scripts,” said Robert, “go from 60 to 64 pages” — where the rule of thumb is, a minute per page — “and these episodes are supposed to be 42 minutes. So we had to try to shrink-wrap our stories to fit.”
“But we have great actors,” added Michelle. “If we didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to get all the words out of their mouths.”
— RACINESS DEFLECTED BY DECORUM
“If you want to have adult relationships,” Michelle said, “you have to figure out how to show what’s going on, without getting yanked off the air.” Especially when it’s on CBS in the heart of prime time.
“But we felt that what was sexier than showing what was going on with people making love was to show it on the faces,” said Robert. “That, we could show — our actors are very good — and get away with a helluva lot.”
— SHREWD MUSIC
The original score in recent seasons took a chamber-music turn, imparting elegance, energy and a touch of irony in a manner Michelle calls “Rossini crossed with Jason Bourne.”
Meanwhile, the licensed “needle-drop” song selections played an organic role in the action.
A memorable sequence in Season 3 found Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) bashing the windows of a parked car with her baseball bat to the beat of a 20-year-old pounding rock tune.
“We find the piece,” explained Robert, “then we edit based on it.” And, in that case, they even souped up the song with the rhythmic bleating of the battered car’s alarm.
— IDEAS, NOT VIOLENCE, DEPLOYED
The courtroom murder of Will Gardner (Josh Charles) in Season 5 became the grand exception that proved the rule. The show had its share of clashes, betrayal and intrigue — but no blood sport.
Said Robert, “On our show, no one’s really shooting at each other. Their words are the guns.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore